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Thursday, February 29, 2024

How to evade justice in Sri Lanka: Reconciliation without accountability

Ambika Satkunanathan.

In 2024, fifteen years after the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict remained unsolved. Tamils who have been victims of human rights violations for decades and pushed to the point of exhaustion by an uncaring state and callous Governments, continue to demand justice. The Government, and even the international community, offer ‘reconciliation’ as an alternative to the Tamil community. What will ‘reconciliation’, that is an alternative to justice and not the natural outcome of transitional justice initiatives, look like? This kumbaya version of reconciliation is a situation where justice will be denied even if some form of truth is revealed. It will be a solution that will not upset the main constituencies of the Southern political parties or the Buddhist clergy and will not have any political cost or consequences for the Government of the day.

As pointed out numerous times, the term reconciliation has been employed by different governments to dilute or deflect the political demands of the Tamils. Even during Yahapalanaya, reconciliation was used extensively to depoliticise the transitional justice process and make it more palatable and less threatening to the southern public.

In 2024, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution ends and renewing it is likely to be challenging in the current global context. Victims are also understandably exasperated with the UNHRC process, which mainly documents current violations and progress in state (in)action to fulfil the resolution and reports them to the Council, with no ability to provide remedies and limited ability to influence state action. The Government has stated it intends to ensure that the resolution is not renewed nor a new resolution adopted. This is the contextual lens through which one must assess two initiatives that have been presented as part of an attempt to address conflict related issues.

 The Global Tamil Forum’s (GTF) initiative with the Sangha for a Better Sri Lanka (SBSL), facilitated by the Association of War Affected Women and funded by the Swiss Government, has earned the ire of the Tamil community, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.

Start as you mean to go: context and process matter

The Global Tamil Forum’s (GTF) initiative with the Sangha for a Better Sri Lanka (SBSL), facilitated by the Association of War Affected Women and funded by the Swiss Government, has earned the ire of the Tamil community, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. The criticisms focus on multiple factors ranging from the broad, vague principles set out in the Himalayan Declaration, which anchors the initiative, to the absence of issues of critical importance to the Tamil community, such as, accountability for war time violations, and the failure to consult with victims prior to embarking on the initiative. The GTF has defended the initiative stating it is only the beginning of a national conversation and said the next step will be to establish inter-faith committees in each district to continue spreading awareness to foster reconciliation.

Long-term efforts to rebuild inter-community relations would fare better if they steered clear of high-profile launches, and meetings with the President, who has done very little to halt continuing violations, and individuals such as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is accused of war time violations as the head of state at the end of the war.

Inter-faith initiatives aren’t new to Sri Lanka. To the contrary, such initiatives have been funded by international donors and have created a mini peace building industry over the decades. These initiatives have been unsuccessful due to various reasons. One of the main reasons is that these initiatives avoid addressing the impact of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism on inter-community relations despite Tamils and Muslims identifying it as a factor that impacts their lives socio-economically and politically. The difference in privilege between the Buddhist clergy and those of other religions involved in inter-faith initiatives is obvious in micro acts, such as seating arrangements at events, to macro issues like the destruction of Hindu and Muslim places of worship. For instance, the Buddhist monks I have interviewed acknowledged racism as a problem, but they did not seem to be aware of the systemic nature of it. Nor did they identify the root causes of the ethnic conflict that remain unaddressed, nor acknowledge the existence of Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy, due to which non-Buddhist communities are subject to discrimination and marginalisation. Contrast this with the clergy of other religions, who spoke of the everyday as well as structural racism and bigotry their communities face due to Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism.  This points to the need for continued inter-community dialogue. However, community mobilisation is required to change deeply entrenched prejudices. It cannot be done in a few weeks or months but would take years. Nor can it be done by visiting a village and holding a one-off meeting for only as long as funding exists. It requires building relationships of trust that demand expending not only financial resources but time and energy that extends beyond ad-hoc initiatives.

Long-term efforts to rebuild inter-community relations would fare better if they steered clear of high-profile launches, and meetings with the President, who has done very little to halt continuing violations, and individuals such as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is accused of war time violations as the head of state at the end of the war. Since GTF has stated they will not engage in negotiations related to a political settlement, politicising the initiative by meeting with politicians before engaging with the people brings little benefit. The more interesting question is, since GTF has stated it plans to “continue to articulate to keep Sri Lanka under international scrutiny for its past and present human rights and international and local laws violations”, how does it envisage doing so while meeting with alleged perpetrators? Particularly, when publicly launching this initiative prior to critical sessions of the UNHRC in 2024, it is quite likely to result in the Government using the initiative as another weapon against continued international scrutiny.

The process adopted by GTF and SBSL, which has excluded the victims and much of the Tamil community, has naturally created suspicion among the victims and the community. The lack of transparency means the Tamil community is unaware of the genesis and drivers of this initiative, whether any agreements were reached between the two parties and how these agreements might or might not align with the demands of the community. Their doubts have increased due to the notable absence of statements endorsing or explaining the initiative by the Buddhist clergy engaged in the initiative.

Inter-faith initiatives can have a positive impact on enabling co-existence, but giving precedence to religious entities over civic mechanisms and community leaders in driving social change is concerning since religious dogma, particularly its interpretation in practice, tends to be conservative and in most instances runs counter to progressive values.

The onus is on the state

A few days ago, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe requested Tamil MPs to support the enactment of the law to establish the Truth Commission, the aim of which he stated is to foster inter-ethnic harmony and enable co-existence. Victims who have traversed the graveyard of unimplemented recommendations of past commissions are skeptical of this initiative but have magnanimously not rejected the Government’s initiative. Instead, they have set out trust building measures that they request the Government to undertake to demonstrate that this commission will not go the way of past commissions. The Government has ignored their requests and bulldozes ahead with the law to establish a truth commission.

The lack of outcomes in previous processes is not due to the lack of truth, as there is plenty of truth in the reports of the past commissions, but due to the lack of political will. Hence, it is the Government that must demonstrate its good faith through meaningful, substantive action. For instance, it can invite the Sri Lanka Accountability Project, the evidence gathering mechanism established under the UNHRC Resolution, to Sri Lanka. It can halt military/TID/CID surveillance, harassment and intimidation of civil society, families of the disappeared, media and former combatants in the North and East. It can stop appropriating land to expand military camps and prevent the destruction of Hindu and Muslim places of worship. One of the four statements issued by civil society in the North and East setting out their position on the proposed truth commission requests the Government to make public a list of all military camps and commanding officers during the past four decades. All reasonable demands, yet the Government has not taken action to implement a single request.

Divide and rule: hijacking victims’ voices

Most disheartening is the actions of some civil society organisations, that instead of demanding that the Government demonstrate good faith, are endorsing the Government’s proposed truth commission. What is deeply concerning is that these civil society organisations in the South are implying that those that pose legitimate questions to the Government regarding the proposed truth commission and critique the shortcomings of the GTF process are spoilers.

It is not incumbent upon the victims, who for decades have witnessed only lack of political will, to accept Government rhetoric at face value and place their trust in the Government. It is disrespectful and unreasonable to expect this from them when successive Governments have reneged on agreements and refused to acknowledge the root causes of the ethnic conflict, such as Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism. Civil society organisations, particularly in the South, should take care not to speak over the Tamil community and victims. They should not dismiss their concerns, attempt to speak for them or attempt to discredit them by labelling their critiques and concerns as ‘parochial and narrow political interests.”. That is not allyship, human rights activism or peace-building but appropriation of their voices and spaces to silence them.

Courtesy of Daily FT

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